The Jim Crow Car
The Jim Crow Car
Source: Douglass, Frederick. "The Jim Crow Car." In My Bondage and My Freedom. New York: Miller, Orton & Mulligan, 1855.
About the Author: In 1817 or 1818, Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey was born into slavery at Holme Hill Farm in Talbot County, Maryland. Raised on plantations and then in Baltimore, Frederick taught himself to read, worked as a ship caulker, and then escaped to New York in September 1838. After marrying and changing his surname to Douglass, he settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts, where he met abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and began speaking at the meetings of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. His public lectures on slavery, abolition, and racial prejudice soon made him a celebrity as well as an immensely popular public speaker. In 1845, Douglass wrote the autobiographical Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, which became a best-seller. In 1847, Douglass moved to Rochester, N.Y., where he published and edited his own newspaper, The North Star. In 1851, The North Star merged with the Liberty Party Paper to form the Frederick Douglass' Paper, and then from 1859–1863, the Douglass Monthly. Douglass's other well-known books include My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881). Many of his essays and speeches have been collected and republished. Douglass also served as the U.S. marshal and recorder of deeds for Washington, D.C., in the late 1870s and early 1880s; was the minister to Haiti and Charge d'Affaires for Santo Domingo in 1889; and campaigned against lynching and for women's suffrage before his death in 1895.
Although this account of Frederick Douglass's forcible removal from an Eastern Railroad Company car in Massachusetts was published in My Bondage and My Freedom in 1855, the incident that he describes took place between 1841 and 1843, when Douglass traveled through a number of New England states, speaking almost nightly at the meetings of several different anti-slavery and abolitionist groups. Historians have actually found evidence for Douglass's eviction from segregated railroad cars on many different occasions during these years. Douglass also describes how he made a practice of resisting removal to the "mean, dirty, and uncomfortable car set apart for colored travelers" that he saw as incontrovertible evidence for "slaveholding prejudice" in the north in his 1881 autobiography, the Life and Times of Frederick Douglass.
Although Douglass is most well known for his abolitionist writing, The Jim Crow Car is an interesting example of his influential work on racial prejudice and segregation in the northern United States. The Jim Crow Car is also notable for its description of early Jim Crow regulations, and as an example of resistance to Jim Crow—both physically and through the later publication of this account—by the first widely recognized African American activist.
I will now ask the kind reader to go back a little in my story, while I bring up a thread left behind for convenience sake, but which, small as it is, cannot be properly omitted altogether; and that thread is American prejudice against color, and its varied illustrations in my own experience.
When I first went among the abolitionists of New England, and began to travel, I found this prejudice very strong and very annoying. The abolitionists themselves were not entirely free from it, and I could see that they were nobly struggling against it. In their eagerness, sometimes, to show their contempt for the feeling, they proved that they had not entirely recovered from it; often illustrating the saying, in their conduct, that a man may "stand up so straight as to lean backward." When it was said to me, "Mr. Douglass, I will walk to meeting with you; I am not afraid of a black man," I could not help thinking—seeing nothing very frightful in my appearance— "And why should you be?" The children at the north had all been educated to believe that if they were bad, the old black man—not the old devil—would get them; and it was evidence of some courage, for any so educated to get the better of their fears.
The custom of providing separate cars for the accommodation of colored travelers, was established on nearly all the railroads of New England, a dozen years ago. Regarding this custom as fostering the spirit of caste, I made it a rule to seat myself in the cars for the accommodation of passengers generally. Thus seated, I was sure to be called upon to betake myself to the "Jim Crow car." Refusing to obey, I was often dragged out of my seat, beaten, and severely bruised, by conductors and brakemen. Attempting to start from Lynn, one day, for Newburyport, on the Eastern railroad, I went, as my custom was, into one of the best railroad carriages on the road. The seats were very luxuriant and beautiful. I was soon waited upon by the conductor, and ordered out; whereupon I demanded the reason for my invidious removal. After a good deal of parleying, I was told that it was because I was black. This I denied, and appealed to the company to sustain my denial; but they were evidently unwilling to commit themselves, on a point so delicate, and requiring such nice powers of discrimination, for they remained as dumb as death. I was soon waited on by half a dozen fellows of the baser sort (just such as would volunteer to take a bull-dog out of a meeting-house in time of public worship), and told that I must move out of that seat, and if I did not, they would drag me out. I refused to move, and they clutched me, head, neck, and shoulders. But, in anticipation of the stretching to which I was about to be subjected, I had interwoven myself among the seats. In dragging me out, on this occasion, it must have cost the company twenty-five or thirty dollars, for I tore up seats and all. So great was the excitement in Lynn, on the subject, that the superintendent, Mr. Stephen A. Chase, ordered the trains to run through Lynn without stopping, while I remained in that town; and this ridiculous farce was enacted. For several days the trains went dashing through Lynn without stopping. At the same time that they excluded a free colored man from their cars, this same company allowed slaves, in company with their masters and mistresses, to ride unmolested.
After many battles with the railroad conductors, and being roughly handled in not a few instances, proscription was at last abandoned; and the "Jim Crow car"—set up for the degradation of colored people—is nowhere found in New England. This result was not brought about without the intervention of the people, and the threatened enactment of a law compelling railroad companies to respect the rights of travelers. Hon. Charles Francis Adams performed signal service in the Massachusetts legislature, in bringing this reformation; and to him the colored citizens of that state are deeply indebted.
Although often annoyed, and sometimes outraged, by this prejudice against color, I am indebted to it for many passages of quiet amusement. A half-cured subject of it is sometimes driven into awkward straits, especially if he happens to get a genuine specimen of the race into his house.
Jim Crow is best described as a system of customs and laws that reinforced racial segregation and subordination in the United States. Jim Crow laws became increasingly pervasive in southern states in the years following post-Civil War Reconstruction. The legality of these laws was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1896 by the Plessy v. Ferguson decision. Jim Crow laws covered countless different aspects of African-American life. They regulated everything from marriage, access to health care, voting, education, and sports activities, to the use of public accommodation, facilities, and transportation, mainly from the 1870s until the last of the laws were struck down in the 1950s and 1960s. Few people, however, realize that Jim Crow laws were not uncommon in the northern U.S., particularly in the years before the Civil War. In fact, the term Jim Crow (taken from a minstrel show character popular in the 1830s) was first used to describe racial segregation as it was applied to northern railroad cars, like the one in Massachusetts that Douglass describes here.
In 1843, following fierce campaigns by Frederick Douglass and other abolitionists, Massachusetts passed a law forbidding discrimination by color on all public railroads. Charles Francis Adams, the anti-slavery Massachusetts state representative (1840–1843) and state senator (1843–1845) whom Douglass mentions in The Jim Crow Car, was instrumental in promoting this groundbreaking legislation on equal rights. Massachusetts and many other northern states passed additional anti-segregation statutes in the following years, although legislation supporting segregation, especially in regard to intermarriage and voting, was also ratified in some northern states. These laws were relatively few in number compared to those in the south, however.
Unfortunately, as Douglass notes in The Jim Crow Car and his other writings, racial prejudice existed independent from laws or even moral aspirations, and was much harder to eradicate. In fact, in 1872, Frederick Douglass's home in Rochester, N.Y., was destroyed, probably by arson, less than a month after he was nominated in the presidential campaign for Vice President on Victoria C. Woodhull's Equal Rights Party ticket. After the death of his first wife, Anna Murray, in 1882, in 1884 Douglass married his secretary, the white reformer and activist Helen Pitts. The resulting scandal indicates the depths of Jim Crow custom, if not legislature, in the north. Douglass continued to speak out against prejudice, Jim Crow laws, and lynching until his death eleven years later.
Douglass, Frederick. Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. Hartford, Conn.: Park Publishing, 1881.
Lampe, Gregory P. Frederick Douglass, Freedom's Voice, 1818–1845. East Lansing, Mich.: Michigan State University Press, 1998.
The Oxford Frederick Douglass Reader, edited by William L. Andrews. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Ruchames, Louis. "Jim Crow Railroads in Massachusetts." American Quarterly 8, 1 (1956): 61–75.